The story of Gift Hill

BISMARCK, ND — In 1957, it appeared to be a forgone conclusion that the Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation, living in their Bismarck “motherhouse,” would be moving to a new site just eight miles east of Dickinson, on the Green River—where there’s rolling terrain, trees along the banks and typical range country. After all, that’s where the Sisters had purchased the property in 1954 with the intent of building a new home, high school and junior college, thanks to gift money and sales made from rosaries and crafts. This 160-acre parcel of land was chosen over property in north and south Bismarck and across the Missouri River near Mandan.

“Mother (Prioress) Edane Volk and her counselors drove up to rural Mandan to inspect a site recommended for the new motherhouse,” noted in historical archives located at the present day Annunciation Monastery. “Their car broke down twice on the way, and they were towed back to Bismarck. At the time they wondered if St. Joseph was hinting that Mandan was not the location chosen by God.”

While the purchased Green River land lay dormant for three years and the construction about to begin at that site in 1957, the sisters continued to be wooed by local Bismarck citizens, businessmen, farmers, the chamber of commerce and Knights of Columbus, to stay in Bismarck—or at least close to it. One farmer and rancher living south of Bismarck, Charles “Chick” Swenson, had property on a hill south of town seven miles ready to gift to the sisters. Not just any land. It overlooked the majestic Missouri River Valley near where Lewis and Clark once put down stakes—prime real estate that had the admiration and approval of many in Bismarck.

“You’d be throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime,” said one man. “It looks like Switzerland.”

Swenson was willing to give the sisters another chance at the same offer that he’d presented to them in 1952—those same 40 acres of free farmland along Apple Creek.

“It was a keen disappointment when the offer was abandoned five years ago,” stated Swenson, in documents. “I have two little girls who will want to attend your college. The offer still stands.”

Shortly thereafter, the sisters accepted Swenson’s offer and aptly named it “Gift Hill.” They began purchasing more adjacent property from farmers. It was at this time the sisters chose the name “Mary College” for its new junior college. On March 30, 1958, sisters, community members, Swenson and newly installed Bishop Hilary Hacker, took part in a groundbreaking and blessing ceremony. A cross was erected on the site (an old monastic tradition) at the highest peak on top of Gift Hill—1880 feet above sea level. Later, this cross was encased in stainless steel to protect it from the elements and given a place of honor.

“It lies … in the most scenic spot in the area,” wrote Sister Andriette Rohrenbach, in a memo to her sisters. “Four counties can be seen from the top of the hill, namely, Burleigh, Morton, Emmons, and Sioux. The Missouri encircles the area, the bottomlands of which give an added touch of beauty to the horizon. One never loses sight of the city of Bismarck to the north.”

Pictured with glasses, Marcel Breuer with the Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation discussing the architecture of their new motherhouse and junior college on Gift Hill

The sisters asked world-renowned architect Marcel Breuer—known for his designs of buildings such as UNESCO in Paris, the Whitney Museum in New York and the American Embassy at The Hague in the Netherlands—if he would undertake the planning of their convent and college.

Breuer’s response was, “I should be delighted to try. Perhaps we might create a little jewel.” The plan evolved from Breuer’s philosophy of contemporary architecture and his study of the Benedictine tradition: permanence, stability, and simplicity—characteristics of Benedictine life—are expressed in the buildings. Breuer used local material such as fieldstone, a natural treasure featured all around campus, that has become symbolic and iconic of the University of Mary today, and Hebron brick to create his “Jewel on the Prairie.”

As the story goes, Breuer knelt down, grabbed a handful of soil, and said, “Even the earth is friendly here.”

“Gift Hill”
Jerome Kolbo

In a newsletter printed by the sisters in August of 1957, they write ”It’s the tradition of Benedictines to strike roots in the soil. They love the land and its people. St. Benedict loved the solitude of Monte Cassino. The sisters cherish the peace of this high hill and its valley and prayerful atmosphere of the heights along Apple Creek. In the quiet and peace of this rural area these twentieth century Benedictines can best develop that complete life where prayer and work achieve the perfect balance, giving glory to God and service to God’s children.”

Construction quickly followed and Annunciation Monastery opened its doors in 1959 to the Sisters as well as students. Over the years the cross on Gift Hill became a gathering place for students to hang out and study while enjoying the scenic view of the Missouri River Valley. After decades of gradual growth in enrollment, more Breuer-esque buildings were needed to be built on Gift Hill, and in 1995, the sisters chose to remove the cross from Gift Hill and stored it in the Monastery archives.

Twenty-two years later, the University of Mary is inviting the media to attend a ceremony that will memorialize the cross by placing it on the original point that was Gift Hill in a newly created plinth, thanks to the generosity of North Dakota Senator John and Mikey Hoeven. Through their lead gift and longtime support of the University of Mary and its founders the Benedictine Sisters, a celebration will be held Friday, September 8, 2017, at 4:30 p.m., during its grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony of its new Lumen Vitae University Center.

The public is encouraged to attend an open house the following day on Saturday, September 9, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. to see and tour the new Lumen Vitae University Center, the Marian Grotto and the Gift Hill Memorial. Bring your appetite as free food will be served.

There is no real stated reason in historical documents as to why the sisters shied away from Swenson’s original offer. Or, why they changed their mind about the Green River land and ultimately selected the Swenson property years later. There are plenty of records pointing to a list of reasons supporting both locations. It could be inferred from the archived documents and comments that the deep love of the Sisters by the community, the geographical benefits and of course the natural beauty of “Gift Hill” were just too great to pass up—a second time.

Today, 60 years later, sisters, students, faculty, staff and community members would say it was a providential decision that has proved invaluable for past, present and future generations, and will now be forever remembered with the Gift Hill Cross Memorial.